The metabolism of dietary essential amino acids by the gut has a direct effect on their systemic availability and potentially limits growth. We demonstrate that, in neonatal pigs bearing portal and arterial catheters and fed a diet containing 23% protein [high protein (HP) diet], more than half the intake of essential amino acids is metabolized by the portal-drained viscera (PDV). Intraduodenal or i.v. infusions of [U-(13)C]-lysine were used to measure the appearance across and the use of the tracer by the PDV. In HP-fed pigs, lysine use by the PDV was derived almost entirely from the arterial input. In these animals, the small amount of dietary lysine used in first pass was oxidized almost entirely. Even so, intestinal lysine oxidation (24 micromol/kg per h) accounted for one-third of whole-body lysine oxidation (77 micromol/kg per h). Total lysine use by the PDV was not affected by low protein (LP) feeding (HP, 213 micromol/kg per h; LP,186 micromol/kg per h). In LP-fed pigs, the use of lysine by the PDV accounted for more than 75% of its intake. In contrast to HP feeding, both dietary and arterial lysines were used by the PDV of LP-fed pigs in nearly equal amounts. Intestinal lysine oxidation was suppressed completely. We conclude that the PDV are key organs with respect to amino acid metabolism and that the intestines use a disproportionately large amount of the dietary supply of amino acids during protein restriction.